“Stop the car!” my friend shouted as we cruised along a country road. The year was 1970. “Isn’t that wild marijuana?” he asked. I gamely pulled over and grabbed him a bunch of the weed in question.
Not only was it not marijuana, but it was stinging nettle, a plant whose touch leaves skin with an itch and a burning pain. I memorized the shape of its sharply toothed leaves, just as I’d memorized that of three-leaved poison ivy, years before. Fortunately, the sting of the nettle, caused by sharp microscopic spines, is short-lived. Nevertheless, I’ve given it a wide berth — until now.
In my community, spring brings with it a wave of nettle fever. Neighbors who are passionate foragers don leather gloves and set forth to gather nettle leaves for cooking. (Nettles lose their sting the minute heat is applied.) Like many common weeds, such as dandelion and shepherd’s purse, this one is a highly touted spring tonic, rich in vitamins and minerals. The cruel handshake it delivers is just a minor annoyance.
Nettles aren’t hard to find. Old-timers will often describe an abandoned farm as “all gone to nettles,” and there is just such a farm down the road from us where everyone scores their spring nettle fix, stuffing bags with the young, tender tips, and bringing them home to their kitchens. The resulting dishes often show up on potluck tables, and in the conversation around them. “Nettles are the most mineral-rich land plant in the world,” someone will crow. Recipe ideas are exchanged: a Tuscan sauce with nettles, garlic and cream. A smooth and creamy French soup in which nettles are combined with sorrel (another spring favorite) along with chicken broth and leeks. Nettles on pasta, nettles on pizza. Nettle risotto, nettle gnocchi, nettle quiche.
So I finally give in. I go up to the old farm and pick nettles, wash them in the sink and try sauteeing them with olive oil the way I often do spinach, topping them with scallions and toasted pine nuts. Not good. Even with all the more fibrous stems removed, the end result has a stemmy texture in the mouth. The aroma is intriguing, oddly oceanic, as if seaweed were a close cousin. (Perhaps because of all those mysterious minerals?) I dump the uneaten concoction into a blender, with some water to make it churn properly, and that’s a big improvement, an adequate substitute for creamed spinach.
I’ll admit I’m a cautious convert. It’s not just the hostility of the plant when you pick it, it’s the way it hovers in my future, poised to colonize my rich soil if I should ever stop maintaining the garden. (“It’s all gone to nettles now,” they’d say.) But I’m going to keep working on this plant. The sorrel in my plot is thriving this year, and I have my eye on that French sorrel and nettle soup.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Tip of the week
Japanese black pine and mugo pines are pruned in May by removing a portion of the new needle bundles, which are called candles. Take care not to slice through emerging needles; prune the candles so that the remaining needles are fully intact.
— Adrian Higgins